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O'Neal left behind legacy at Mizzou, Parkway North

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November 8, 2008 -- Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel (left) fights back tears as he puts his arm around Lonnie O'Neal, father of Aaron O'Neal who would've been a senior playing on Senior Night before a game between Missouri and Kansas State at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo. Chris Lee | Post-Dispatch

COLUMBIA, Mo. • Every year, Parkway North football coach Bob Bunton gathers his team for what’s become an August ritual.

When University of Missouri linebacker and former Parkway North star Aaron O’Neal died in 2005, Bunton made a vow to Lonnie O’Neal, Aaron’s father.

“I told Lonnie that as long as I was the football coach at Parkway North, the kids would hear his story,” Bunton said. “Every year before the season’s first practice, we take a knee and I tell them the story to remind them who Aaron was and how he represented our football program.”

It’s a story that still hurts to share, but once again next month, Parkway North players, some of them just 5 and 6 years old when O’Neal died, will learn about the player whose life ended tragically on July 12, 2005 — 10 years ago Sunday.

O’Neal, 19 and preparing for his redshirt freshman season at Mizzou, collapsed during an offseason team workout and died less than two hours later.

A decade hasn’t softened the pain.

“I’m so proud of the way for a year and a half he represented our program at Missouri,” Bunton said. “It was a goal of his and he truly earned it. He was not a great student to start off in high school. I think of a kid who came through the program who worked to achieve his goal.

“Then you’re left with the ‘what if.’ He never got to complete his goal, but here we are 10 years later still talking about him. So we know he made a great impact in his short time. That’s very gratifying.”

In summer 2005, Gary Pinkel’s Tigers were coming off a difficult losing season. Pinkel’s public persona had become prickly during the 5-6 campaign. His future was uncertain heading into his fifth season. Then, O’Neal staggered and collapsed on Faurot Field. The program never would be the same.

“I think of that beautiful smile that he had,” said former Mizzou assistant Dave Steckel, who was O’Neal’s linebackers coach. “I think about the phenomenal ability he had and the excitement, now disappointment to never know if I could have developed his God-given ability into a great player at Mizzou and onto the NFL.”

On July 12, 2005, Steckel was on vacation with his wife Mary Beth in his home state of Pennsylvania where they were celebrating their wedding anniversary. Steckel played a round of golf in the afternoon and left his phone in his car. He returned to find more than 40 messages, urging him to call Columbia immediately.

Steckel had been on coaching staffs that dealt with player deaths in the past: At Lehigh, a kicker died from brain cancer; at Rutgers, a former linebacker drowned. But there’s no manual to prepare for what unfolded in Columbia that day. He and his wife cut short their vacation, as did Mizzou’s other coaches that week — Pinkel was in Las Vegas at the time — and returned to MU.

“You go comatose,” said Steckel, now in his first year as Missouri State’s head coach. “You think it’s surreal at first. … I’ll never forget that day.”

The Boone County medical examiner initially cited lymphocytic meningitis as the cause of death, but a wrongful death suit filed by O’Neal’s parents identified the sickle cell trait, which O’Neal carried, as the cause for the “vascular crisis” that led to his death. In the wake of O’Neal’s death, the chairman of the university’s pathology department and several outside experts concluded that the sickle cell trait contributed to the player’s death. The genetic blood disorder can lead to organ failure and possibly death under intense exertion.

In March 2009, the university reached a settlement that awarded O’Neal’s parents $2 million. Among the suit’s 14 defendants were Pinkel, former athletics director Mike Alden and members of the team’s training staff. As part of the agreement, MU used an additional $250,000 to establish an annual endowed scholarship in O’Neal’s name. Seven of the 14 defendants still work in Mizzou athletics.

In 2009, Mizzou began mandatory sickle cell testing for all incoming athletes, a year before the NCAA required all incoming Division I athletes to test for it.

Current Missouri coaches were unavailable to comment for this story.

“Death is an inevitable thing,” Steckel said, “but when it’s young, it’s early and it’s tragic, people can’t come to grips with it as much. It either separates people or brings them closer together. In our case, it brought them closer together.”

In the days and weeks that followed, marked by grieving, confusion and unrest, certain players emerged as spokesmen and leaders for the program, Steckel said, specifically defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams and tight end Martin Rucker.

“What happens is everyone wants to point a finger why or how,” Steckel said. “At some point lawyers take over. But Lorenzo and Rucker got together and said, ‘OK, we’re protecting our family and here’s how we do it.’ The leadership and strength of our team really started to take hold.”

The 2005 Missouri football team honored O’Neal throughout the season with various tributes, culminating in a memorable comeback win over South Carolina in the Independence Bowl, after which players rushed to the 25-yard line to celebrate, an homage to O’Neal’s No. 25 jersey.

“That team grew closer,” Steckel said. “They lost a brother.”

The young core of that Mizzou team ignited a run of winning seasons under Pinkel. For years, players from those teams have said Pinkel changed dramatically after O’Neal’s death and grew closer to his players.

“I know it’s changed (Pinkel),” Steckel said. “Anytime something like that happens to you, it changes you.”

Bunton insisted he has maintained a strong relationship with Mizzou coaches since O’Neal’s death and never resented the staff for what happened 10 years ago. The MU coaches gave Lonnie O’Neal rings for the bowl games O’Neal would have played in from 2005-08, Bunton said. In 2008, Lonnie attended MU’s senior day festivities when the team honored his son on what would have been his final home game.

“People have asked me, ‘Do you blame?’” Bunton said. “No, there’s no blame. My goodness. We’ve all pushed kids. I do think there should be a responsibility to know each of your kids and who you can push physically and who you cannot.”

At the end of each season at Parkway North, Lonnie O’Neal attends the Vikings’ team banquet to present an award to the team’s most inspirational player: the Aaron O’Neal Award.

“Lonnie’s never missed a banquet, which is awesome,” Bunton said. “The story is told again that night.”

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